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New Review: “Legacy of Brutality” (Beloved)

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BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Legacy of Brutality

That the cruelty and violence of American slavery is among the darkest chapters in human history is obvious. That over 60 million black Africans and their descendants suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of their white masters is well-known. The weapons of violent, cruel oppression employed by slave owners is a vast arsenal. Whippings, floggings, starvation, branding, hanging: all these and more were used to cow the meek and subjugate the defiant. Of all the tools used to terrorize slaves, however, none is more vicious, more insidious, than sexual assault. Rape leaves physical scars, to be sure, but it is even more devastating than a whipping in that the trauma is deeply psychological as well as physical. This mental damage can take a lifetime to heal, if it ever does. Toni Morrison’s novel of freed slaves in Ohio captures this horrid fact. In Beloved, the theme of sexual abuse binds the protagonists in a legacy of brutality.

We see this legacy manifest in the title character herself. Sethe speculates Beloved is unable to remember her past because she’s likely blocked out painful memories of rape. (140) Sethe has good reason to suspect Beloved has been victimized; Ella was confined and raped for over a year by a white slaver and his son. (140) Stamp Paid – himself the survivor of his wife’s rape by a slave owner – seems to acknowledge this same scenario befalling Beloved on page 277: “Was a girl locked up in the house with a whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that’s [Beloved].” Beloved perpetuates the cycle of abuse in her supernatural rape of Paul D. He clearly does not want to have sex with Beloved, but Paul is powerless to resist her command: “You have to touch me. On the inside part. And you have to call me my name.” (137)

Paul D’s forced intercourse with Beloved is not the first time he’s been sexually victimized; at a glance it would seem Paul is saved from forced fellatio, but close reading of page 127 shows Paul D is assaulted by the slavers:

“Kneeling in the mist, [the chain gang] waited for the whim of a guard, or two, or three. Or maybe all of them wanted it. Wanted it from one prisoner in particular or none – or all… Convinced he was next, Paul D retched – vomiting up nothing at all. An observing guard smashed his shoulder with the rifle and the engaged one decided to skip the new man for the time being lest his pants and shoes got soiled…”

This passage indicates all men in the chain gang are eventually forced to service one or more guards, and that the reprieve granted by dry heaves and the Hi Man’s call is only “for the time being” for Paul. The effects of his oral rape in Georgia have a lasting effect on Paul D’s sexuality. In Wilmington, after his escape from the chain gang, Paul and his tobacco tin heart lay down with a woman in exchange for a meal and nice sheets. “He fell in [to the bed] with a groan and the woman helped him pretend he was making love to her and not her bed linen.” (154) In essence, Paul whores himself for pork sausage and a luxurious bed to sleep in.

Paul D would later take to bed Sethe, a woman no stranger to the horrors of sexual abuse. Sethe was made aware of her mother’s multiple rapes at an early age. The wet nurse, Nan, tells Sethe her mother was “taken up many times by the crew” aboard the ship they were carried on. (74) She then further describes to Sethe how her mother discarded the unwanted progeny of these rapes. The impact of these revelations on Sethe’s psyche is clear: “As small girl Sethe, she was unimpressed. As grown-up woman Sethe she was angry, but not certain at what.” (74) While uncertain about the anger surrounding her mother’s rape, Sethe’s rage at her own assault by schoolteacher’s boys is white-hot and razor-sharp. In Sethe’s telling of the forced suckling to Paul D, we see one of the few uses of the exclamation mark in Beloved (19-20). The ultimate end to the rage, the shame, the horror of her assault is Sethe’s own assault on her children and the reason for it:

“…Anybody white could… dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived though and got over it, she could never let… a gang of whites [invade] her daughter’s private parts, [soil] her daughter’s thighs…” (295 – 296)

This is the true motivation of Sethe’s murdering Beloved: not to keep her from slavery, but to keep her from rape. Sethe knew the toll sexual assault could take, and refused to let her daughter succumb to that horror.

We see in Beloved a people decimated by the horror of sexual violence. This theme ties together the main characters of the story, as well as providing a common thread to connect supporting characters in the tale. Whether it’s Paul D’s rape by Beloved or the white guards in the chain gang, Beloved’s serial rape and captivity, or Sethe’s lifelong exposure to sexual violence, everyone in Toni Morrison’s novel is touched by the legacy of brutality left behind by sexual assault.

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New Essay: “Our Darkest Parts”

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Categories: Essays, Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Our Darkest Parts

Since the earliest days of humanity, there have been legends of the dead returning to life. The most familiar tales of the undead in western culture are those of the vampire and the zombie. Countless novels, comic books, movies, and video games are devoted to portraying these night stalkers, these predators of predators. Both vampires and zombies return from death to feed upon the living; vampires drink blood and zombies consume flesh. As apex predators, humans are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as prey. The thought of being another creature’s food is atrocious to us. It is not the fear of consumption that makes vampires and zombies horrifying, however. It is the mirror which they hold up to our culture, reflecting our darkest parts, that makes the undead terrifying. Vampires and zombies, in their opposing extremes, reveal American fear of that which is outside the mainstream.

The way in which one is turned from normal human to vampire or zombie reveals our twin fears of individualism and collectivism. The act of turning someone into a vampire is intimate and personal. The progenitor vampire is often portrayed in fiction as stalking its victim and learning everything about their lives. The vampire then seduces the would-be convert. The victim is told only they are worthy of the vampire’s gift of immortality; only they are special enough among the teeming throngs of humanity to be elevated above their peers. Zombies, on the other hand, are equal-opportunity undead. They transmit their infection through bites and scratches delivered to their unlucky victims. Rich or poor, young or old, black or white matters not to a zombie. If you are alive, you’re a valid target. If you escape one zombie attack alive, it’s simply a matter of time before you become one of the shambling dead yourself. You will be assimilated into the undead collective. This is one of the most common themes in zombie movies. Inevitably, one of the minor characters of the movie will be bitten, conceal the violation, and turn into a zombie at the most inopportune moment.

Americans pride themselves as individuals, but understand we are all part of a linked society. Neither the vampire nor the zombie operates within the confines between the extremes of egoism and collectivism: vampires holding themselves above the masses, zombies dragging everyone down with them. We loathe equally people being swallowed by the collective and being held up as better than their peers. Should an American hold themselves to be of a status far beyond the lot of common folk (as is often the case with celebrities), we feel the need to knock them down a peg or two. Our independent streak, however, prevents us from embracing the other extreme, collectivism (or communism).

The societies vampires and zombies exist in reveal our dual fears of autocracy and anarchy. Vampires form autocratic societies centered around a “head vampire.” This head vampire becomes the center of a cult of personality, its members made up of the converts it previously exalted. We see this theme frequently in the cinematic portrayal of the vampire. The heroes in vampire movies frequently are on a mission to destroy the head vampire in order to save a loved one from the curse of vampirism. The vampiric autocrat echoes the tradition of dictators like Hitler or Stalin, convincing its followers to commit unspeakable acts without hesitation. Conversely, zombies need no prompting to kill and devour. They are uncoordinated packs of ravenous cadavers. No one zombie directs the others; no vote is taken to determine which unlucky victim is to be consumed. Zombification is anarchy. Zombie novels often focus on the random nature of these beings. Living characters may be attacked at any time, in any situation.

Americans cherish democracy, where every voice is heard, but understand restrictions need to be placed on individuals for the common good. Neither the vampire nor the zombie respect this balance: vampires trampling democracy with their autocratic machinations, zombies disobeying all laws in their hunt for flesh. The American Revolution was fought to throw off the shackles of a tyrannical monarch, and our hatred of autocracy is deeply ingrained in our culture because of it. On the other hand, we are a rational people. Our rationality makes it impossible for us to abandon all government and laws in the other extreme.

The symbolic results of destroying a vampire or zombie reveal our opposing fears of existing without reason or emotion. Vampires are killed with a stake through the heart. The heart is seen, traditionally, as the seat of emotion. Thus, destroying a vampire with a stake through the heart is symbolically the same as destroying its emotions. Ironically, vampires are cold, calculating monsters, devoid of emotion. Nearly every vampire-themed comic book, game, story, or movie has the stake through the heart as a means of destroying the vampire, or at least immobilizing it. Zombies, conversely, are ended by destroying the brain. As the brain is seen as the organ of logic and reason, putting a zombie to rest is akin to the destruction of reason in the creature. This is again ironic, as zombies are mindless, flesh-eating corpses. The annihilation of grey matter is always a means to eliminate a zombie in fiction and folklore.

Americans use reason and emotion in harmony, striking a balance between what is practical and what feels right. Neither the vampire nor the zombie have this harmony: vampires abandoning emotion for cold logic, zombies eschewing rationality in their hunt for flesh. We fear being subsumed by emotion as much as being caught in the icy grip of dispassionate logic. Most Americans believe, as the ancient Stoic philosophers did, that being ruled by emotion limits one’s ability to make sound decisions. On the other hand, we also believe capitulation to pure logic limits one’s ability to sympathize with other people.

Vampires and zombies are truly terrifying creatures. The undead feed on our very flesh and blood. They devour those we love; they make a lie of our predatory supremacy. The terror engendered by vampires and zombies is not due to their consumption of human fluids and tissues, however. It’s due to the extremes in our culture they represent. We see the danger in collectivism or extreme individualism. We fear anarchists as much as dictators. We prize emotion and logic, and avoid the destruction of either. Vampires and zombies embody the extremes of thought we seek so desperately to balance in life. Perhaps it is because these monsters are not alive that we are able to project our faults on them so easily. In any case, the undead have become the examples of our darkest parts, and we fear them for it.

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Everybody Loves Raymond (Did It)

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Categories: Aegis Studios, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I know that times are tough for just about everyone right now, but my hetero life-mate needs your help! Travis Legge, my erstwhile business partner at Aegis Studios, is set to begin shooting his first feature-length film in less than two weeks. He’s still got a bit of money to be raised to meet his budget.
If you can spare $50, $10, or even a single dollar, you can help support indie film and the Rockford economy. More importantly, you can help a wonderfully talented storyteller make his own “big break.” I’ve read the script and I’ve seen the actors: this movie is going to be amazingly fun. Your help is needed to make it happen.
Please, head to IndieGoGo and contribute at the highest level you can. If that’s only a dollar, it will honestly help. For more info on the film and Travis’s other projects (including the work we did together on the Contagion RPG), head to the Aegis Studios homepage.
See you at the movies!